of Riding with the Overland Mail
The Butterfield Overland Mail route was divided into about 200 way stations and relay posts. Stages traveled about 120 miles each day, at speeds of three to five miles per hour. Passengers were allotted about two breaks each day, no more than 40 minutes rest while eating at a station along the way before piling back into the coach to continue the trip.
Waterman L. Ormsby was a New York Harold reporter assigned to ride the entire trip on the first westbound Butterfield Overland Mail Company trip. He wrote about the trip in the Herald. His columns were later turned into a book.
On the beginning of the trip:
The Pacific Railroad train, carrying the first overland mail, arrived at Tipton. . . . We found the first coach ready, the six horses all harnessed and hitched and Mr. John Butterfield, Jr. impatient to be off. . . . The time occupied in shifting the baggage and passengers was just nine minutes, at which time the cry of "all aboard" and the merry crack of young John Butterfield's whip, denoted that we were off. . . . We rode along a somewhat rapid pace, because John Jr. was determined that the overland mail should go through his section on time; and though his father kept calling out, "Be careful, John," he assured him that it was "allright" and drove on.
Our horses were four in number, that being the allotment all along the line from Tipton to San Francisco . They were harnessed at this point and to change teams was the work of but a few minutes, and we were off again. This time we got a driver who was slow . . . [and] did not know the road well, and we had to feel our way along. As the night was dark, the roads difficult, and the coach lamps seemed to be of little use in the dim moonlight . . . I began to feel some fear of wet feet and mail bags when the water reached the hub, but we got over safely and pretty dry, as the water was not deeper than half of the wheel. . . . I must confess it was a matter of utmost astonishment to me how the driver ever found his way in the wilderness.
On breakfast provided at a west Texas way station along the journey:
Jerked beef (cooked on the [buffalo] ‘chips’), raw onions, crackers slightly wormy, and a bit of bacon.
On the scenery:
"…I shall never forget the gorgeous appearance of the clouds: tinged by the setting sun above those jagged peaks, changing like a rapid panorama, they assumed all sorts of fantastic shapes, from frantic maidens with dishevelled hair to huge monsters of fierce demeanor, chasing one another through the realms of space.
On the Overland Mail Company employees:
I found [them], without exception, to be courteous, civil, and attentive. . . . I found the drivers on the whole line, with but few exceptions, experienced men. Several are a little reckless and too anxious to make fast time, but as a generally thing they are very cautious.
On the whole experience:
Had I not just come out over the route, I would be perfectly willing to go back, but I now know what Hell is like. I've just had 24 days of it.
James Henry Tevis was an adventurous young man who traveled into Central America and the Tran Mississippi west. He found employment with the Butterfield Overland Mail Company, first helping to build the Apache Pass station, and then staying on as the station agent.
On the Apache Pass station:
A stone corral was built with portholes in every stall. Inside, on the southwest corner, were built, in L shape, the kitchen and sleeping rooms. At the west end, on the inside of the corral, space about ten feet wide was apportioned for grain room and storeroom, and here were kept the firearms and ammunition.
William Tallack rode from San Francisco to St. Louis on Overland Mail Company stages June and July, 1860. The Englishman was returning to England from Australia by way of the United States . Tallack shared some of his observations of traveling on this trail.
On riding in the stagecoaches:
The writer — often felt doubtful as to how far he might be able to endure a continuous ride of five hundred and forty hours, with no other intermission than a stoppage of about forty minutes twice a day, and a walk, from time to time, over the more difficult ground, or up and down stiff hills and mountain passes, and with only such repose at night as could be obtained whilst in a sitting posture and closely wedged in by fellow-travelers and tightly filled mailbags.
A third ground for apprehensive anticipation was the extreme liability of vehicles to overset [overturn] during a journey through regions possessing no macadamized roads, and often only a route the most rugged and steep. In case, too, of any accident or illness . . . there was the certainty of being placed in a very unpleasant position.
On the trail:
Near midnight our conductor called out, 'Straighten yourselves up!' in preparation for some very rough ground that we were just approaching which had been broken by fissures and banks, caused by an earthquake. In about an hour after these arousing jolts we drew up at the foot of the Tejon Pass. The Tejon station was a store kept by a dry sort of Yankee, who, after moving about very leisurely, and scarcely deigning to answer any questions put him, set before us a supper of goat's flesh and coffee. After making a hearty meal we had again to shift into another vehicle similar to the preceding. (A mud wagon‹a light van with black curtains.)
It being one o'clock in the morning, and a dark night, we had to be very careful that none of our respective packages or blankets were left behind in the hurried operation of changing; so we tumbled hastily into our new wagon, wrapping ourselves up in coats or blankets nearly as they came to hand, waiting till morning for more light and leisure to see which was our own.
By means of a blanket each, in addition to an overcoat, we managed to settle down warmly and closely together for a jolting but sound slumber. What with mail-bags and passengers we were so tightly squeezed that there was scarcely room for any jerking about separately in our places, but we were kept steady and compact, only shaking 'in one piece' with the vehicle itself.
Thus closely sleeping, we ascended fifteen miles of a mountain road, except for a part of the ascent, where we had to walk‹not so pleasant a stretch as sometimes, on account of the darkness, sleepiness, and the occasional crossing of streams in our path.
On the food:
Meals (at extra charge) are provided for the passengers twice a day. The fare, though rough, is better than could be expected so far from civilized districts, and consists of bread, tea, and fried steaks of bacon, venison, antelope, or mule flesh—the latter tough enough.
On the scenery:
"The Apache Pass was a rugged but very picturesque portion of our route," said Tallack, "and will be long remembered by the writer as the scene of the finest storm and sunset he ever witnessed."
Raphael Pumpelly was a noted American geologist who rode on Overland Mail Company stages west to Tucson .
On the stagecoach:
The coach was fitted with three seats, and these were occupied by nine passengers. As the occupants of the front and middle seats faced each other, it was necessary for these six people to interlock their knees; and there being room inside for only ten of the twelve legs, each side of the coach was graced by a foot, now dangling near the wheel, now trying in vain to find a place of support. An unusually heavy mail in the boot, by weighing down the rear, kept those of us who were on the front seat constantly bent forward.
"The fatigue of uninterrupted traveling by day and night in a crowded coach, and in the most uncomfortable positions, was beginning to tell seriously upon all the passengers, and was producing in me a condition bordering on insanity.
H. D. Barrows traveled with his wife on Overland Mail Company stages from California to Missouri in December 1860 and January 1861.
On recommending the trip to others:
Too many people, doubtless, who think more of their ease than they do of robust physical health, a stage ride of a thousand or two thousand miles, may seem a very formidable undertaking. But for those who had a liking for adventure, and a desire to see something of the world, a long ride of two or three weeks, practically in the open air, not in hot, stuffy cars, possesses a wonderful charm, especially in remembrance.
Mark Twain, the popular American humorist, traveled by stagecoach through the American West. He wrote of the trip in his semi-autobiographical book, “Roughin’ It,” originally published in 1872.
Twain’s trip was not on the original southern Butterfield Overland Mail line, but on the later, Central Route, that took Twain from St. Joseph, Missouri to Carson City, Nevada . With that in mind, there is much that Twain observed about his journey that could have been said of the Butterfield Overland Mail trail as well.
On the food:
It purported to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler. He had no sugar and no milk--nor even a spoon to stir the ingredients with.
On riding in the stagecoach:
Our coach was a great swinging and swaying stage, of the most sumptuous description--an imposing cradle on wheels. It was drawn by six handsome horses, and by the side of the driver sat the "conductor," the legitimate captain of the craft; for it was his business to take charge and care of the mails, baggage, express matter, and passengers. We three were the only passengers, this trip. We sat on the back seat, inside. About all the rest of the coach was full of mail bags--for we had three days' delayed mails with us. Almost touching our knees, a perpendicular wall of mail matter rose up to the roof. There was a great pile of it strapped on top of the stage, and both the fore and hind boots were full. We had twenty-seven hundred pounds of it aboard.
On the employees:
The stage company had everything under strict discipline and good system. Over each two hundred and fifty miles of road they placed an agent or superintendent, and invested him with great authority. His beat or jurisdiction of two hundred and fifty miles was called a "division." He purchased horses, mules harness, and food for men and beasts, and distributed these things among his stage stations, from time to time, according to his judgment of what each station needed. He erected station buildings and dug wells. He attended to the paying of the station-keepers, hostlers, drivers and blacksmiths, and discharged them whenever he chose. He was a very, very great man in his "division"--a kind of Grand Mogul, a Sultan of the Indies, in whose presence common men were modest of speech and manner, and in the glare of whose greatness even the dazzling stage-driver dwindled to a penny dip. There were about eight of these kings, all told, on the overland route.
Next in rank and importance to the division-agent came the "conductor." His beat was the same length as the agent's--two hundred and fifty miles. He sat with the driver, and (when necessary) rode that fearful distance, night and day, without other rest or sleep than what he could get perched thus on top of the flying vehicle. Think of it! He had absolute charge of the mails, express matter, passengers and stage, coach, until he delivered them to the next conductor, and got his receipt for them.
Consequently he had to be a man of intelligence, decision and considerable executive ability. He was usually a quiet, pleasant man, who attended closely to his duties, and was a good deal of a gentleman. It was not absolutely necessary that the division-agent should be a gentleman, and occasionally he wasn't. But he was always a general in administrative ability, and a bull-dog in courage and determination --otherwise the chieftainship over the lawless underlings of the overland service would never in any instance have been to him anything but an equivalent for a month of insolence and distress and a bullet and a coffin at the end of it.